Politics & Policy

Don’t Make the U.S. Capitol a Fort

A member of the National Guard stands guard near the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., January 13, 2021. (Brandon Bell/Reuters)

For many years, the U.S. Capitol and the Capitol Hill neighborhood had been among the most impressive and accessible features of the Washington, D.C., area. No longer. Since the riot on January 6, a security perimeter marked off by high, razor-wire fencing and guarded by National Guard and other security forces has surrounded this formerly accessible seat of government, as well as much of the area around it. On January 28, Capitol Police acting chief Yogananda Pittman recommended that at least some of these security measures be made permanent.

This recommendation has already drawn objections from area politicians. It isn’t necessary to minimize what happened on January 6 to object to what would amount to a permanent fortification of an institution — and world-renowned symbol — of a free people’s self-representation.

We need to complete the reviews already underway of the day’s security failures, some of which are still baffling. Of course, indications are that many actors bear partial blame for those failures: Capitol Hill police for failing to make preparations commensurate with the intelligence warnings of possible violence; D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser for rejecting offers of reinforced security on the day of the pro-Trump protest; and, most egregiously, Donald Trump himself, for dithering as the mob overwhelmed security. It is important to know exactly how the events of January 6 transpired if they are to be prevented, rather than rush to turn Capitol Hill into a kind of militarized zone indefinitely.

Also, we should punish those responsible for January 6 appropriately. That means both those who failed to prevent what happened, including heads of security personnel (some of whom have already resigned), and those who carried out the violence and who unlawfully entered the Capitol. Our political and judicial systems making absolutely clear that such behavior represents an intolerable transgression are a way to deter future attempts.

It’s hard to see, though, why extra security, including perimeter fencing as necessary, can’t be added for high-profile events and when threats are high without making it a permanent feature. Whatever enhanced precautions take root in the Capitol Hill area after all of this has concluded should strive, as best as possible, to maintain the historically accessible nature of America’s seat of government. The Capitol Hill riots ought to be condemned as an un-American spectacle, and we should act to prevent anything like them from happening again. But it would also be un-American, and a change with worrying symbolic power, if the locus of popular government were forever visibly separated from the people themselves.

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